Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

George Will: The Mushrooming Welfare State

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

George Will: The Mushrooming Welfare State

Article excerpt

America's national character will have to be changed if progressives are going to implement their agenda. So, changing social norms is the progressive agenda. To understand how far this has advanced, consider the data Nicholas Eberstadt deploys in National Affairs quarterly:

America's welfare state transfers more than 14 percent of GDP to recipients, with more than a third of Americans taking "need-based" payments.

Transfers of benefits to individuals through social welfare programs have increased from less than one federal dollar in four (24 percent) in 1963 to almost three out of five (59 percent) in 2013. In that half-century, entitlement payments were, Eberstadt says, America's "fastest growing source of personal income."

This is not primarily because of Social Security and Medicare transfers to an aging population. Rather, the growth is overwhelmingly in means-tested entitlements. More than twice as many households receive "anti-poverty" benefits than receive Social Security or Medicare. Between 1983 and 2012, the population increased by almost 83 million -- and people accepting means-tested benefits increased by 67 million. So, for every 100-person increase in the population there was an 80-person increase in the recipients of means-tested payments. Food stamp recipients increased from 19 million to 51 million.

What has changed? Not the portion of the estimated population below the poverty line (15.2 percent in 1983; 15 percent in 2012). Rather, poverty programs have become untethered from the official designation of poverty. Expanding dependency requires erasing Americans' traditional distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. This distinction was rooted in this nation's exceptional sense that poverty is not the unalterable accident of birth, and is related to traditions of generosity arising from immigrant and settler experiences.

Eberstadt's essay, "American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State," argues that this state is extinguishing the former. America "arrived late to the 20th century's entitlement party." European welfare states reflected European beliefs about poverty: Rigid class structures rooted in a feudal past meant meager opportunities for upward mobility based on merit. …

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